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Problems in access to Covid-19 testing for general practice nurses will threaten the ability of primary care to deliver this year’s expanded influenza vaccination programme, the government has been warned.
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has this week written to Baroness Dido Harding as head of the NHS Test and Trace system to outline concerns about Covid-19 testing for staff and patients in general practice.
“Ultimately, test and trace logistics and capacity must urgently improve”
The letter said that GPs were “struggling to access tests for themselves and their teams”, meaning staff may be forced to self-isolate unnecessarily.
It stressed that an “accessible and reliable testing system is key to ensuring that health professionals are not kept away from the frontline”.
The college also highlighted potential knock-on effects for the flu vaccination programme if primary care staff were unable to get the testing they needed.
“As schools and workplaces open, driving demand for both primary care services and testing, we simply cannot afford to have practice staff having to isolate, taking them out of frontline clinical practice,” said the letter.
“This is particularly important given the expanded flu vaccination programme which many practices started to deliver last weekend.”
In the wake of Covid-19, the government has this year doubled the number who people who are eligible for a free flu vaccination on the NHS.
Flu vaccinations are mostly delivered by general practice nurses who at the same time have been told to get ready before the end of the year to roll out a Covid-19 vaccination, if one is found.
The RCGP said primary care also needed to have “rapid access” to testing for patients within general practice, where clinically appropriate, to help with the diagnostics process. Although it stressed that this should not be a replacement for a centralised testing system.
Any testing problems in local communities also had consequences for general practices, noted the college, warning that GPs were being “inundated with requests from patients struggling to access testing near them”.
“There has been a spike in demand in recent weeks and the message is that only people with symptoms should be requesting a test”
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the RCGP, who signed the letter, said: “Ultimately, test and trace logistics and capacity must urgently improve in order to efficiently help tackle Covid-19 – and work needs to be done to restore public confidence in the system.”
Since the letter was sent and amid rising demand for tests, the government has published a new Covid-19 testing priority list.
It placed symptomatic NHS staff, including those in general practice and pharmacy, among the top three groups prioritised for testing, alongside patients in clinical care and residents and staff in care homes.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said it was now processing more than 200,000 tests a day on average and reiterated that NHS staff with symptoms were being prioritised.
“There has been a spike in demand in recent weeks and the message is that only people with symptoms should be requesting a test,” they added.
“As we expand our testing capacity further, we are bringing in new labs that can process tens of thousands of tests a day, opening new test sites and trialling new rapid tests that will give results on the spot.”